COVID-19 cases in Chicago continued to pile up over the weekend, and the city’s restaurants and bars responded by canceling reservations, booking tests for workers, and scheduling deep cleanings.
Restaurant staff perfected these routines in 2020, though optimists had hoped flat-out closures were in the rear-view mirror thanks to vaccinations and other tools (such as contact tracing and apps that track potential exposures) that gave health officials and politicians a better way of managing the pandemic.
The closings, coupled with cloudy and chilly conditions in Chicago that have forced diners inside, have created a sense of doubt within the city’s hospitality community. As Lula Cafe owner and chef Jason Hammel illustrates in an Instagram story, restaurants are closing again, this time voluntarily, due to the unpredictability of the omicron variant and the sharp surge in cases over the past week.
Hammel himself temporarily closed Lula, a Logan Square landmark for 22 years, after workers tested positive. On the same Instagram story, he also began collecting announcements from other restaurants and bars including Scofflaw, the influential Logan Square cocktail bar, and Stephanie Izard and Boka Restaurant Group’s Little Goat Diner and Cabra in West Loop. Rose Mary in Fulton Market is also closed until Tuesday to test workers. Last week, a series of anonymous tips claimed there was an outbreak at the restaurant, a claim ownership denied. Before they decided to close, ownership told Eater Chicago they were taking the proper precautions.
Other restaurants of note that have closed include Kumiko, Lardon, the Native, Old Irving Brewing (which should reopen Wednesday, according to ownership), Sepia, Sportsman’s Club, S.K.Y. (though on Monday, ownership announced they had reopened) the Way Out, Billy Sunday (which is back open after the staff tested negative, according to ownership), and Superkhana Intentional (which is co-owned by Hammel). Giant, the popular New American restaurant in Logan Square also closed on Saturday and Sunday, though the Instagram post that announced the closure did not say whether this was because of COVID. Last week, Arami, an acclaimed West Town sushi restaurant, AO Tacos in Bronzeville, and Steingold’s of Chicago in Lakeview all announced that they were closing temporarily. The length of the closures varied, but, since they were all done voluntarily, the posts indicated that they would be only for a few days, until staff tests came back negative.
The most heartbreaking announcement may have been from Elske, the Scandinavian restaurant from husband and wife David and Anna Posey. The Michelin-starred West Loop restaurant was among the first to go into hibernation in 2020, staying closed through the winter in the hope of avoiding the starts and stops due to pandemic challenges and state mandates. Restaurants can’t flip a switch and instantly reopen; they must find staff, order supplies, and summon the mental strength to serve diners who might not be enthusiastic about wearing masks and or treating employees with basic respect.
Elske remained closed from October 2020 to April, but closed again in June due to staffing issues. The Poseys reopened on December 8, but now, due to a “potential COVID exposure,” they’ve closed again. A Sunday post on the restaurant’s Instagram account says that the owners are hoping to reopen December 29, “after a short break and a lot of negative test results, or maybe never again.” Accompanying the caption is a Bob’s Burgers-inspired drawing of the Poseys with their baby and dog reading “grand re-re-re opening.”
“I am worried,” says Ajit Kalra, co-owner of Bhoomi Modern Indian Grill, a food stall inside Urbanspace food hall in downtown Chicago.
Kalra anticipates an increase in catering orders for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, as some diners may have uncertainties about indoor dining in the presence of omicron. But, at the same time, Kalra feels the country isn’t doing enough to fight the spread of COVID-19: “I think if we did a better job as a city or a county to protect ourselves we could actually operate thriving businesses that would just adapt to a different model.”
Kalra’s co-owner and wife Sukhu Kalra suggested on Sunday that they roll out meal kits next week in order to reduce contact between staff and customers. Many restaurants last year offered meal kits for the same reason.
Despite the uncertainty and closures across the city, however, Bhoomi enjoyed its busiest Saturday this past weekend thanks to customers from the nearby Christkindlmarket holiday market on Daley Plaza. Ajit Kalra says customers were escaping to the food hall to avoid the cold and wind, and eating inside: “I didn’t see a carryout order all day.”
Health experts are saying that January could see one of the largest spikes in COVID-19 cases. At the same time, the country has better resources and tools to navigate tough times. For businesses and restaurants, there’s a better understanding of consumer behavior. Owners have actual data of how delivery and carryout will work.
And there are services to help them manage carryout business: for instance, Bhoomi just last week began appearing on Tock, the reservations portal that in 2020 pivoted and expanded into a carryout platform. Ajit Kalra also says they will focus more on delivery. Reliance on delivery through the pandemic became a hot topic in 2020 with Chicago politicians, as in August the city filed separate lawsuits against both DoorDash and Grubhub over allegedly deceptive practices.
“People aren’t going to want to stop eating food,” says Kalra. “If anything, they want to enjoy food prepared for them even more during the pandemic.”